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Israel Widens Deadly Assault On Gaza

Israel widened its deadliest-ever air offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers Sunday, pounding smuggling tunnels and a central prison, sending more tanks and artillery toward the Gaza border and approving a reserves callup for a possible ground invasion.

Israeli leaders said they would press ahead with the Gaza campaign, despite enraged protests across the Arab world and Syria's decision to break off indirect peace talks with the Jewish state. Israel's foreign minister said the goal was to halt Gaza rocket fire on Israel for good, but not to reoccupy the territory.

The most visible target of Sunday's bombing was Gaza's Seraya prison, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, but Israeli warplanes also attacked metal workshops, trucks carrying contraband fuel and a network of tunnels that run from Gaza to Egypt.

Those tunnels, the Israelis say, are used to smuggle weapons and fighters for Hamas. The bombing was designed to cripple Hamas' ability to attack Israel.

Just last week a truce between the two ran out, and Hamas fighters resumed firing rockets into southern Israel, killing one man in a border town.

The bombings over the weekend targeted Hamas security installations, Palmer reports, but in the crowded Gaza strip, they're located dangerously close to houses and apartments.

With the two-day death toll climbing above 290 Sunday, crowds of Gazans breached the border wall with Egypt to escape the chaos. Egyptian forces, some firing in the air, tried to push them back into Gaza and an official said one border guard was killed.

Hamas, in turn, fired missiles deeper than ever into Israel, near the Israeli port city of Ashdod, and continues to command some 20,000 fighters.

Yet Hamas leaders were forced into hiding, most of the dead were from the Hamas security forces, and Israel's military intelligence chief said Hamas' ability to fire rockets had been reduced by 50 percent. Indeed, Hamas rockets fire dropped off sharply, from more than 130 on Saturday to just over 20 on Sunday.

Israel's intense bombings - some 300 air strikes since midday Saturday - wreaked unprecedented destruction in Gaza, reducing entire buildings to rubble.

Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said it was the deadliest force ever used in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. "Since Hamas took over Gaza (in June 2007), it has become a war between two states, and in war between states, more force is used," he said.

European leaders called on both Israel and Hamas to end the bloodshed.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke Sunday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has set up a rival government to Hamas in the West Bank, and condemned "the provocations that led to this situation as well as the disproportionate use of force."

The White House was mum about the situation in Gaza on Sunday after speaking out expansively on Saturday, blaming Israel's retaliatory strikes on Hamas. The president spoke by phone with National Security Advisor Steve Hadley Sunday morning to receive an update on the situation, reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.

President-elect Barack Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, was also briefed and is monitoring the situation closely. Obama senior advisor David Axelrod told CBS News' Face The Nation on Sunday that the president-elect "recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Israel" and that he wants to help bring about peace.

Photos: Strikes Continue
An injured Palestinian is helped from the rubble following an Israeli missile strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2008.
"Obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks, as Hamas began shelling, Israel responded. But it's something that he's committed to," Axelrod said.

In the most dramatic attacks Sunday, warplanes struck dozens of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, cutting off a lifeline that had supplied Hamas with weapons and Gaza with commercial goods. The influx of goods had helped Hamas defy an 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, and was key to propping up its rule.

Sunday's blasts shook the ground several miles away and sent black smoke high into the sky.

Earlier, warplanes dropped three bombs on one of Hamas' main security compounds in Gaza City, including a prison. Moments after the blasts, frantic inmates scrambled down the rubble. One man, still half buried, raised a hand to alert rescuers.

Gaza's nine hospitals were overwhelmed. Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, who keeps a record for the Gaza Health Ministry, said more than 290 people were killed over two days and more than 800 wounded.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which keeps researchers at all hospitals, said it had counted 251 dead by midday Sunday, and that among them were 20 children under the age of 16 and nine women.

Israeli leaders gave interviews to foreign television networks to try win international support.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, speaking Arabic, spoke on Arab satellite TV stations, denouncing Hamas rule in Gaza. And Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that the assault came because Hamas is smuggling weapons and building a "small army."

In Jerusalem, Israel's Cabinet approved a callup of 6,500 reserve soldiers, in apparent preparation for a ground offensive. Israel has doubled the number of troops on the Gaza border since Saturday and also deployed an artillery battery. It was not clear, though, whether the deployment was meant to pressure Hamas or whether Israel is determined to send ground troops.

Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, after 38 years of full military occupation, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to the territory to hunt militants. However, Israel has shied away from retaking the entire strip, for fear of getting bogged down on urban warfare.

Military experts said Israel would need at least 10,000 soldiers for a full-scale invasion.

The U.N. Security Council called on both sides to halt the fighting and asked Israel to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza; 30 trucks were let in Sunday.

"The Security Council's statement, which does not have the enforcement authority that a Resolution would have, was a compromise position between the views of Libya, which wanted to condemn Israel, and the U.S. position, which focused on the attacks on Israel by Hamas," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk.

The prime minister of Turkey, one of the few Muslim countries to have relations with Israel, called the air assault a "crime against humanity."

The carnage inflamed Arab and Muslim public opinion, setting off street protests across the West Bank, in an Arab community in Israel, in several Middle Eastern cities and in Paris.

In the Iranian capital of Tehran, police pushed back students trying to overtake the United Nations compound, reports CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras

In Lebanon, authorities - assaulted by rock-throwing protesters - used water cannons and tear gas to disperse angry crowds.

Emotions were also inflamed in Turkey, which has been mediating indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. The diplomatic fallout was swift as Syria called off the negotiations on Sunday.

And in London, some 1,500 protesters descended on the Israeli embassy to denounce the airstrikes, Assuras reports.

Some of the protests turned violent. Israeli troops quelling a West Bank march killed one Palestinian and seriously wounded another. A crowd of anti-Israel protesters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul became a target for a suicide bomber on a bicycle. In Lebanon, police fired tear gas to stop demonstrators from reaching the Egyptian Embassy.

Egypt, which has served as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians as well as between Hamas and its rival Fatah, has been criticized for joining Israel in closing its borders with Gaza. The blockade was imposed immediately after the Hamas takeover in June 2007.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called on Hamas to renew its truce with Israel. The cease-fire began unraveling last month, and formally ended more than a week ago. Since then, Gaza militants have stepped up rocket fire on Israel.

A Hamas leader in exile, Osama Hamdan, said the movement would not relent. "We have one alternative which is to be steadfast and resist and then we will be victorious," Hamdan said in Beirut.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was unclear when the operation would end but told his Cabinet was "liable to last longer than we are able to foresee at this time."

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in cities and towns in Gaza rocket range, and life slowed in some of the communities. Schools in communities in a 12-mile radius from Gaza were ordered to remain closed beyond the weeklong Jewish holiday of Hanukkah which ends Monday.

In the southern city of Ashkelon, home to some 120,000 people, streets were relatively busy, despite the military's recommendations against being out in the open.

Several times throughout the day, however, that routine was briefly interrupted by the sounds of wailing sirens warning of an imminent attack. Pedestrians scurried for cover in buildings. After a number of rocket landed in the distance, a woman taking cover nearby briefly fainted. She refused water and food from bystanders, instead shivering in a corner, apparently in shock.

Gil Feiler, a regional economics experts, said it was too early to assess the economic impact on Israel, but that a monthlong operation could cost Israel $200 million in lost wages, trade and other business.

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